Luttrell and his SEAL team fly over the Gulf of Oman. They’re headed over the Arabian Sea, toward the region of Baluchistan, a part of modern-day Pakistan. The plane lands in Baluchistan, on a base outside of the city of Dalbandin. Baluchistan, a mountainous area, is a haven for terrorists.
The SEALs are entering one of the most dangerous parts of the world for Americans—a region full of Taliban soldiers, who actively support al Qaeda (and hate the West for their own reasons).
Luttrell thinks about his home. He’s from East Texas, and he’s still very close with his identical twin, Morgan Luttrell. Morgan is also a Navy SEAL. The twins grew up in a nice house in Texas, overlooking pastures of oak trees and cows—“a peaceful place for a God-fearing family.” Luttrell and his twin were raised to love God. He wasn’t baptized, but Catholicism “suits me,” he says, and he imagines that Pope John Paul II would have made a good SEAL.
Luttrell is a lifelong Christian, and his belief in a particularly American brand of Christian morality informs his perspective throughout the book. Somewhat surprisingly, though, Luttrell considers himself a Catholic, making him the minority in the predominately Protestant American South.
Luttrell’s mother, Holly Luttrell, is a “brilliant horsewoman,” and Luttrell grew up surrounded by horses. Holly is a seventh-generation Texan, and Luttrell believes that Texas is a part of his own spirit. Texans, he believes, are the kindest, friendliest, most hospitable people in the world.
Luttrell grows up in Texas, a state famous for its hospitality, friendliness (towards white Christians, at least), and its strong support for the American military. All three of these themes show up throughout Luttrell’s memoir, suggesting that his upbringing has a huge influence on his adult life—and also his support for George W. Bush, another Texan.
How did Luttrell, “a farm boy from the backwoods of East Texas,” become a Navy SEAL? To begin with, Luttrell has always been strong. Even as a child, he was great at sports, largely because he didn’t mind practicing for hours. From his father, Luttrell learned about the importance of hard work. Luttrell’s father was a savvy investor and horse breeder, and he often made huge profits selling stallions. Around this time, the Texas oil market was booming. But in the late 1970s, with the Iranian revolution, the price of oil dropped. By the mid-1980s, the oil market was tanking, and almost everyone in Texas felt the effects. Luttrell’s family had to sell their house and horses.
While Luttrell doesn’t comment on it, it’s very interesting that Luttrell grows up aware of a connection between the Texas oil market and the Middle East. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 sparked much of the anti-Middle Eastern prejudice in America today, and also weakened the American economy by restricting American access to Iranian oil. George W. Bush, a former Texas “oil man” himself, was criticized for rather blatantly using the invasion of Iraq to secure America’s access to Middle Eastern oil. Also note that Luttrell, despite his later hardships, grew up in comfortable circumstances.
When Luttrell was in his twenties, his family was very poor, and he and Morgan had to work hard to pay for college. After Morgan broke his leg, he was forced to undergo an operation without anesthetic because his family couldn’t front the money for it. Luttrell and Morgan have always been tough, Luttrell says. When they were children, their father beat them for getting bad grades. The twins grew up to be adept swimmers, runners, and marksmen, thanks to their father’s training.
In many ways, it’s suggested that Morgan and Marcus’s father’s harsh discipline prepared them for the harsh tutelage they received while training to become SEALs. The Luttrell family’s loss of wealth is also directly related to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East (the main cause of the Iranian Revolution).
Luttrell’s father always wanted his children to be Navy SEALs. By the time Luttrell was twelve, he knew he wanted to be a SEAL, and he had a sense of how hard it would be to become one. In East Texas, there were many ex-SEALs and Green Berets. When Luttrell was a teenager, a man named Billy Shelton, an ex-Green Beret, trained Marcus Luttrell and Morgan Luttrell to fight and bulk up. They were terrified of Billy, but this made them work harder and become better soldiers.
Texas is one of the biggest recruitment sites for American soldiers, in part because of its size but also because of the strong, generational military culture (and, often, lack of other opportunities for young people) in the state: many children grow up wanting to become soldiers and fight for their country, and later in their lives they teach young children how to become soldiers themselves one day.
During SEAL training, most recruits drop out. People don’t understand how hard it is to become a SEAL, and they often don’t have the willpower to work as hard as it takes. Becoming a SEAL, Luttrell says, is probably harder than getting into Harvard. And yet SEALs tend to be humble, even though they know how important their service to their country is.
Luttrell emphasizes the SEALs’ pride in their accomplishments, but also their apparent unwillingness to take personal credit for anything. SEALs, as Luttrell portrays them, are proud and yet humble in other ways: they know they’re the best of the best, but they’d also sacrifice their lives for their country in a heartbeat. Once again Luttrell expresses scorn for work that’s typically associated with intellectuals and the Left, like getting into an Ivy League school.
Back in 2005, Luttrell and the SEALs fly across the Regestan Desert, over the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains. Luttrell reads through his training materials, learning as much about Afghanistan and the Taliban as he can. There isn’t a lot of reliable information about the Hindu Kush: the enemy is too unpredictable. However, Luttrell knows that Taliban warriors and al Qaeda operatives are waiting for a chance to kill American citizens.
Luttrell and the SEALs face an enemy that is, if anything, even more dangerous than the terrorist bombers in Iraq. The Taliban troops in Afghanistan are highly trained, and they know the dangerous Hindu Kush terrain far better than the American soldiers do.
In the weeks leading up to the SEALs’ arrival in Afghanistan, there’s been a lot of violence in the country. The Taliban have increased attacks on President Hamid Karzai’s government. The Taliban have been in existence since 1994, when they were led by a Mullah (Muslim clergyman) named Mohammed Omar. By 1998, the Taliban had conquered the capital city of Kabul, and controlled most of Afghanistan. Once in power, they became more repressive and authoritarian, banning women from attending school and persecuting non-Muslims.
The Taliban have imposed an extremist agenda, based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran, in Afghanistan. As a result of their rule, women are persecuted to an unprecedented degree, since they’re not allowed to educate themselves (or even expose their faces in public). As Luttrell points out, the Taliban rose to power in part because they were careful to save their most authoritarian policies for last, essentially deceiving the Afghan people into thinking they were a more moderate group.
The Taliban also collaborated with al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, throughout the late ‘90s. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden to the military, and in response the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions on Afghanistan. In the 2000s, the Taliban became more authoritarian. In 2001, they detonated two statues of the Bamiyan Buddha—an act “tantamount to blowing up the Pyramids of Giza.” The Taliban were determined to wipe out all non-Muslim culture.
The Taliban have committed many human rights violations, as well as horrific attacks on non-Muslim cultures and ancient, priceless artifacts. And yet one of the Taliban’s most destructive acts in the long term may have been to promote the prejudice that all Muslims are extremist, violent, and radical—a prejudice that colors the way Luttrell himself seems to view the people he encounters during his deployment. For a more nuanced account of the Taliban and the Muslim people they terrorized, readers might consult Malala Yousafzai’s memoir I Am Malala.
After September 11, 2001, the American government again demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden. By October, the military had unleashed a major attack on Afghanistan, but Mullah Mohammed Omar was able to escape. The American military continued to attack Afghanistan, aiming to wipe out the al Qaeda operatives who’d planned 9/11. By the end of 2001, the Taliban and al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan were in retreat. But by the time Luttrell and his team were preparing to land in Afghanistan, the Taliban had made a resurgence.
Luttrell again links the 9/11 attacks with operatives in Afghanistan, even though many intelligence reports have revealed that the real masterminds of 9/11 were based primarily out of Saudi Arabia (a country with which America has a much warmer political and economic relationship).
To understand Afghanistan, Luttrell says, it’s important to understand the Pashtuns, a “tribal group” that make up a large portion of Afghanistan’s population. They’re also “the quintessential supporters of the Taliban”—the Pashtuns get along with the Taliban, Luttrell argues, because of their military heritage and fierce code of honor. Pashtun women are expected to bear children and perpetuate the Pashtun line, even if this means separating those women from society (through purdah: the practice of living in a separate room from men, or wearing clothes that entirely cover one’s body). Perhaps “the finest virtue” of the Pashtun tribe, Luttrell claims, is its emphasis on hospitality and protection. Tribes often engage in the practice of lokhay warkawal, which involves offering protection and hospitality to others: literally “the giving of a pot.” Luttrell has reason to be “eternally grateful” for lokhay.
Luttrell characterizes the Pashtuns as ideal Taliban recruits, to the point where he seems to suggest that all Pashtuns are either Taliban soldiers or Taliban soldiers in the making. However, he allows that the Pashtuns have some peaceful, hospitable customs, foreshadowing the protection that he receives at the hands of his Pashtun saviors later on in the memoir. Luttrell seems to see the world in mostly black-and-white terms—and while he sees most Middle Easterners as fundamentally inhuman and savage, those who ascribe to the honorable principles that saved his life are portrayed as heroes.
Luttrell and the SEAL team land in the American military base in Bagram, in the heart of Afghanistan. They’re excited for the task ahead of them, which involves fighting the Taliban to the best of their abilities. Luttrell has brought a DVD of his favorite movie, The Count of Monte Cristo, based on the book by Alexandre Dumas. The movie, with its tale of a lone man seeking vengeance against powerful foes, inspires Luttrell. Luttrell thinks about the words the hero writes on a cave: “God will give me justice.”
It’s telling that Luttrell’s favorite movie is about a man seeking violent vengeance against his more powerful opponents—essentially a revenge fantasy. Luttrell has already let on that he thinks of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan as revenge for 9/11, and he seems to be motivated in general by a desire for violent retribution. As a result, it’s perhaps hypocritical that he seems to criticize the Pashtuns for their violent, vengeful militarism—the same could be said about Luttrell’s own temperament.